The first time I heard of Ret Samadhi (रेत समाधि) was somewhere in my Twitter timeline where I read it had won the International Booker Prize. I never knew such a prize existed! So many wonderful authors of languages other than English that we never know of simply because they are not visible in our small, limited worlds. But when different worlds collide we discover things of beauty that enrich our lives.
I was a voracious reader in my childhood. I still am, albeit with much less time to devour books at speed. Of course all these are books in English. Apart from the chapters in Hindi and Marathi texts at school, I’ve never specifically bothered to read a book outside of that.
No actually, I did. In my thirties. Because I decided I wanted to, needed to, know the literature of India and, while I could not read all the languages, I should attempt books in the languages I was fluent in. So I read Premchand Ki Shresht Kanahiya (प्रेमचंद की श्रेष्ठ कहानियाँ), a collection of short stories, the first of which in that very old edition was Shatranj Ke Khiladi (शतरंज के खिलाड़ी) that Satyajit Ray adapted for his only Hindi film. It is one of my top ten films and better than the original short story.
But I really put effort in reading Marathi books. The first one was Mrutyunjaya (मृत्युंजय) by Shivaji Sawant [not Mrityunjaya, that is the Hindi pronunciation). It was hard at first. My brain had to get used to reading several pages at one time, pause over pronunciations, and learn new ways of thinking. Once I got the hang of it though, I could not put down the book. A masterpiece, it is.
Then I discovered Bhau Padhye. His Vasunaka (वासूनाका) resonated with me because it was like I knew those characters. The chawl, चाळ and the inhabitants were familiar to me because I grew up in Girgaum, the old Mumbai heartland of the Marathi manoos surrounded by chawls, the migrant workers from the Konkan, the bored eve-teasing boys, the secret affairs that everyone knows about, and the brawls. It was simple and deep writing. A reflection of the native Mumbaikar. After that I read Rada (राडा) about an industrialist’s spoilt son who challenges a Shiv Sena shakha pramookh (chapter chief). Balasaheb Thakeray, Shiv Sena chief, tried to block the publication notwithstanding it was a Marathi book by a Marathi writer. So much for the Sena’s nativist roots.
Which brings me to Ret Samadhi. When I came to know it has won the International Booker Prize I decided to read the original Hindi book first and then the English translation. I am lucky to be fluent in both. I started just like I had Mrutyunjaya. Slowy, word by word, page by page. My Hindi is a bit rusty but it is like riding a bicycle innit. And I am hooked. Stylistically it is unlike any other Indian book I have read (except perhaps The God Of Small Things). Sharp, incisive and very observant. It cuts down the patriarchal, the neoliberal aspirational, conservative upper middle class Hindu India that has forgotten forgotten history. And I am just 50 pages into it. The prose feels like poetry such that I felt as deep urge to record myself and share bits from the book.
So acknowledging Geetanjali Shree, the author, and her gift to the world, here is a paragraph about Reebok shoes. I’ll keep posting as I read only because I want to share how the book impacts me.
It is alert level 3 in Aotearoa New Zealand and it’s been more tiring than I thought. Of course I have worked through this period. Not at a COVID-19 testing centre but keeping the wheels of primary care moving. Repeat scripts, ‘flu shots, phone consults, the anxious and the ill. Then there was/is the homeschooling. Utterly, utterly exhausting! I don’t know how parents with more than one child cope but I didn’t even have the energy to read a book. The child can now go to school but we still have homework.
We watched Mr India on YouTube. I thought a classic Hindi film about an invisible man, lots of kids and a comedy would be fun for the child. I first watched it when it came out in 1987. I was in junior college in Bombay. From my middle class, upper caste Hindu, dominant culture perspective it was an innocent time for us teens in India. For our parents, who had been born just before or after independence, building a new nation was top priority. That meant being upright citizens, focused on education and economic mobility, being modern but maintaining traditions and community. India had just come out of The Emergency. The anger was subsiding. Rajiv Gandhi had become the Prime Minister after his mother Indira, the one who declared The Emergency, had been assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards in 1984. (Why she was assassinated and the aftermath of that requires an in-depth discussion but suffice to say some Sikhs affected by the progrom after arrived in New Zealand as refugees.)
In 1987 Rajiv Gandhi was still popular and perceived as progressive. Someone who would take India into the modern era. I remember a speech he gave invoking Martin Luther King Jr. He seemed to be surrounded by fresh thinkers. Of course at 19 you have different priorities and ‘politics’ was separate from life. Mr India was released that year in May.
If my memory serves me right (because in those days I was an avid reader of Stardust and other filmi gossip magazines, this herewith can be a bit unreliable), Salim-Javed shopped around their script of Mr India for a long time. Popular Hindi male stars refused to take on the role of the invisible protagonist because the idea did not gel with their image. Shekhar Kapur came on board pretty late. It was his second film as director. Sridevi‘s most famous song ever, Kaate Nahin Kat Te Yeh Din Yeh Raat, came about when Feroz Khan told Shekhar Kapur to see her number Har Kisi Ko in his film Janbaaz just to understand how sexy she was in a saree. So we have Mr India. A film about an ordinary music teacher who raises orphans and finds a device that makes him invisible and gives him the power to fight against the powerful villain.
Now looking at it from a grown up, diasporic Indian, film student, filmmaker, writer, enrolled in an M.A. to direct drama and a slightly decolonised lens, I see a not just a fun film but a pertinent film.The Western world largely dismisses mainstream Hindi cinema as tedious and illogical (until now of course calling it Bollywood and whatnot = ‘$$$$’). How can a film industry that started pretty much after the Lumiere brothers brought their magic to Bombay be irrational and meaningless? The template is different from the Western model but we know that storytelling differs across the world. So does cinema.
I will argue that Mr India is a modern, urban ‘native’ story that captures the desires of Indians and the spirit of India across political climes. So I looked for articles and analyses but stopped myself from going down the rabbit hole of academic readings because this is not an assignment for a university paper. 🙂
None of the scanty essays on Hindi science fiction cinema mention Mr India but there is plenty about Koi…Mil Gaya, the most well known Hindi film from that genre. (I’ll give some references at the end of this long post, and not in an academic biblio format.) Mainstream sci-fi Hindi films can be counted on your fingers and I’ll categorise into two periods. Before 1991 and after.This cut off point is crucial because Indian society changed significantly after 1991 when Manmohan Singh opened the Indian economy. The free market benefited the rich and middle classes but nothing trickled down, entrenching successive generations in poverty. The money allowed the Indian to be upwardly mobile, aspirational, travel easily. Materialistic consumption became easy. India prospered but India got more divided along class lines, urban-rural lines and religious lines. She was not prepared for the neoliberal existential anxiety that would settle in like the dust on her roads, ailing and eroding her insides. Much has been written about this that can be found easily online. I blogged about it years ago after I read Thomas Friedman’s book The World Is Flat and Anand Giridhardas’ book India Calling. There is a documentary John and Jane on Indian call centres that mushroomed in India. Anyway. Before 1991 there were only two Hindi sci-fi films. Mr X In Bombaycame out in 1964. It is a love story and has an invisible man, a flying car and a mad scientist in a small, straightforward, linear universe. Although there are two scenes that can be considered a comment on Brahman greed when the invisible hero stops four overweight Hindu priests from taking expensive gifts after his fake death rituals. Mr India came out twenty-three years later.
Now cut to 2003. Koi…Mil Gay, starring Hrithik Roshan, is the story of a young man with a mental diasbility who makes friends with a blue alien. Jadoo, the alien has come to earth in response to the sound Aum that has been sent out multiple times by the young man’s scientist father before he dies. Jadoo also ‘cures’ his earth friend’s mental disability plus gives his ‘superpowers. It is now welve years since India became a free market. Neoliberal anxiety has made a home in her psyche. There is deep fear of losing the Indian ethos, tradition and culture (=the Hindu way of life), the apparent outcome of material consumption and Western influence. It is also the time mainstream Hindi cinema travels easily, beyond its traditional overseas markets of the Middle East, South-East Asia and smaller places like the West Indies, Fiji, South Africa. Or the erstwhile USSR. Hindi films can now reach the Western consumer, the affluent Indians who will readily replicate popular cinema as culture(=Hindu culture) to assuage their own diasporic anxieties. Kaching! The few readings I did describe the ‘Hinduised visual regime’ of Koi…Mil Gaya. Jadoo is blue, like the god Krishna. He can use the powers of the sun to heal, like Krishna had multiple powers. And reshaping the ancient Aum’s syllables as a sonic signal when sound cannot travel in outer space! (You know, just like the claim that the sounds of the sun are like an ancient Hindu mantra!) Of course you could argue that Avatar has blue creatures too. But those creatures and the universe they inhabit is informed by various indigenous cultures. It is a story about colonisation and destruction not a religion resurgent as extremist ideology and supremacy. Another reading on Koi…Mil Gaya talks about how the film “re-inscribes the hierarchical systems of oppression that are associated with colonialism”.
All non-Western cultures reference their mythologies while telling stories. So does Indian cinema. Raja Harishchandra is the first film made in India. He was a noble king and his story is told across various ancient texts with slight variations. We all want to see ourselves represented but does India only have a Hindu past and Hindu mythology? Or does Hindi cinema erase India’s indigenous mythology? That is another topic.
The way I read it, Mr India does not reference Hindu mythology, a Hindu past or Hindu nationalism. There was no tension between telling a story about an ordinary Indian man who can become invisible aimed at local audiences and producing a film to entice foreign markets. Thus there are no flash digital effects done in overseas post-production facilities to compete with big budget Hollywood blockbusters. It is not imitative or derivative. The only anxieties are about everyday issues like being able to pay rent or afford food. Of course it is full of classic tropes such as the corrupt and ruthless rich businessmen and the white foreigner who exchanges ammunition in return for gold deities stolen from temples that he can smuggle out. (Bless Bob Christo!) Yet. Mogambo, the second most famous Hindi film villain after Gabbar Singh, who wears a blonde wig and decorative army dress, addressing himself in third person could be anyone. He is stripped of caste, race, nationality and religion. Seema, the spunky journalist, is a single, independent woman whose only aim is a good story. She moves between the traditional saree (used here as a dress of desire rather than submission) and Western clothes with ease. She does not bow to the patriarchy disavowing her self after she finds love. Calendar is gay, his homosexuality is normalised even though the speech and gestures are stereotyped he is not subject to ridicule. The orphan children are not scolded into respecting their elders or told never ask questions. Arun could have been invisible in real life. He is not a typical Hindi film ‘hero’. To make him even more every-man his attire harks back to Raj Kapoor in Shree 420. The invisibility is a salute to the dormant democratic power that Indians have (but rarely use). It is about looking internally to find the ability to resist and fight again our own corruption and an external power. These enemies lurk around at all times and can be anything or anybody because anyone can desire ultimate power and be corrupt at any time.
That is why, to me, Mr India stands out as a modern, urban ‘native’ story that captures the desires of Indians and the spirit of India across political climes.
Nationalism and Postcolonialism in Indian Science Fiction. Bollywood’s Koi…Mil Gaya. 2003. In multiple journals.
Science Fiction, Hindu Nationalism and Modernity. In Sci-Fi, Imperalism and Third World Essays on Postcolonial Literature and Film, 2010. Both articles by Jessica Langer and Dominic Alessio.
Liverpool Companion to World Sci-Fi Film, chapter on Indian sci-fi. 2014.
Cultural Imaginaries of Science: A brief history of Indian sci-fi cinema. 2015. AV Lakkad.
Here is an inspiring post from a yogi. I often laugh off skinny white women in their Lululemon Athletica and spray tanned skin talking about ‘yoga’ because I believe that the truth cannot be appropriated, that for every such instant-nirvana seeker there are yogis who, with their truth, will carry on and that stream is ever flowing. (I don’t mean the angry Baba Ramdev types who propagate Hindu extremism through their teachings, that is equally corrupt.)
Maybe I should defend yoga more often when the next skinny white woman rubs it into my face?
The resurgence of Marathi cinema makes me immensely proud in a way that I cannot explain. I am the last person in the world, I would like to think, who believes in ideas such as patriotism and nationalism thus by default, parochialism. Growing up in Girgaum, Bombay, watching Marathi theatre ranging from sangeet natak (musicals) to Vijay Tendulkar‘s masterpieces, old arthouse cinema (Jabbar Patel in particular) as well as the madness of Dada Kondke, knowing inherently that a Maharashtrian audience receives and consumes visual performing arts in a different way, I could not understand why it was limited in its outreach. Or why it faded away.
Now I do and so I feel happy to see the renaissance. From the inane commercial to global cinema it is an amazing spectrum. Then we have artists like Nagraj Manjule whose life experience will always make for brilliant storytelling. I watched this trailer of Fandry and wanted to see the film, I wanted to cry, to feel angry, frustrated, come out of the theatre pumped up to change the world. This film will never release in New Zealand but I imagine myself doing all the above anyway. Nagraj has nothing new to say yet it needs to be told over and over to sensitize us. So thank you Nagraj. Here is to more path breaking stories via Marathi cinema.
Since the time we saw Nagraj Manjule’s debut feature ‘Fandry’, we have been shouting out from rooftop that it’s a terrific debut and a must watch. Click here to read our recco post. This week, Fandry is releasing outside Maharashtra, and with English subtites.
After the film’s release and the acclaim it got all over, Nagraj wrote a piece for Maharashtra Times. Much thanks to @GoanSufi who came up with the idea to translate it in English for wider reach, took the permission, and did it for us. Do watch the film if you haven’t seen it yet. And then read it.
Now that Fandry has released, I’m reminiscing about all those incidents that are linked with it. These…
I was going to write an end-of-the-year rant about my pet peeves within my smug little existence, trying to detach myself from the rape-protest drama in Delhi. Horrible, brutal crime, I told myself but I now live in New Zealand so should not be worried with what happens back home. I am safe here, I can wear what I like, do what I want, go out at any time of the night. I live alone, am independent, no one judges me. Sweet as. I was wrong. So, so wrong. This innocent young girl’s death has made me angry. Mad, stomping angry.
The last time I went to India, in 2010, men stared at my breasts as I walked the streets. Fully clothed in my khadi salwar-kurtas, not making eye contact with any unknown males, I used to go about my work with men still coming up right in front of me, their eyes on my breasts. Then there was the time when a male bus passenger rubbed his penis against my shoulder as I sat in a crowded bus. He went on even as I slouched further into my seat contemplating whether to yell at him and make some noise or just let it go. That was my default setting. Like so many Indian women who grow up in India. Make yourself as inconspicuous as possible and even if you have to protest, think about it first because everyone, even other women, will turn around and tell you it is your fault. I mustered all my courage to yell at him and while he backed off slightly he yelled at me to ask what he had done. The implication being that I was just a mad woman to shout at him to stand straight and not lean against me; it is a crowded bus. How could I have asked him to keep his penis to himself and not on my shoulder? Is there a Hindi or Marathi word that a decent woman can use in public to describe the organ? If I’d spoken in English then I would have immediately been ‘modern’, further implying deterioration of my morality. Now I am in New Zealand. No catcalls from Indian men gathered at the end of each street, no one rubbing against me, groping me or staring at my breasts. In reset mode. Procrastinating any reaction to a young, innocent girl brutally raped, keeping it out my mindspace. Then she died. A life full of hope snuffed out. So I got mad, stomping angry. Mostly at myself. Somewhere in the comfort of reset mode compassion and empathy for my sisters was deleted. Besides, my intellectual snobbery stopped me from engaging in any discourse against the death sentence and stoning that the many Indians were calling out for. But now I want to plunge into it.
So I’ll start by arguing against the death sentence and stoning that so many Indians are demanding for the rapists. Stop; think. Did these six men just drop from the sky or are they a part of the Indian society? Where did they get their attitude towards women and violence? Or the idea that they could get away with such a brutal crime; that the police might not do anything? Indian governments of all ideologies have sanctioned rape in the name of suppressing rebellion and uprisings. When did middle class India last check the human rights record of the Indian Army against Kashmiri and North-Eastern women? Or the police raping tribal women in the Red Corridor? Or was it okay to use rape as a weapon for the safety of the rest of the Indians? The Culture Of Impunity and disrespect for women is not an aberration but ‘normal’ behaviour. So who deserves the death sentence? Indian soldiers? Indian police? Fathers that rape their daughters? Husbands that rape their wives? Brothers that rape their sisters? Politicians? Or we the people? For turning a blind eye?
Now let’s look at the prominent women who reacted to the rape.
Stoic Sonia-ji remained silent as per usual. Only to come make an appearance on television reading from the teleprompter. Fake much?
Then there was Sushma-ji. The keeper of the virtue of us Hindu women said if the girl survives then she will be like the living dead. Not, (read subtext if you can through her boring lecture) because she had lost her intestines but because she was raped and would have no honour left. Sushma-ji may I remind you that once upon a time you wanted all advertisements for sanitary napkins removed from television because they were a bad influence on us innocent Indian women. Perhaps we should have stayed at home five days a month and continued using old sarees to soak up our menstrual discharge? This way we would have been safer ya?
And finally Jaya-ji. The distress is genuine but to believe that because we worship so many goddesses Indian men actually respect women in real life? Oh Jaya-ji, you are so naive. Only in our Bollywood films and only after we’ve had an item number in skimpy clothes and the man has tamed her and ‘saved her’ will the heroine find redemption in treating him like god. Only then will he respect her in return.
Overall the larger issue of the treatment of women remained unaddressed. What is it that makes Indian society treat Indian women shabbily? Here is one explanation. This is the story not just of one child who died after rape but many more who die before they are born, many who suffer because of insufficient dowry, domestic abuse, sexual abuse and abuse from institutions that are meant to protect them. Women like us and those not like us. This is the story of everyone’s attitude towards women as victims of sexual assault. Lawyer Flavia Agnes tells among other tales how the doctors examining a rape victim in Bangalore were more interested in the elasticity of her vagina than finding forensic evidence.
As India moves towards more economic liberalisation, with good or bad effect, society is bound to change and with that the Indian democracy. Which means we have to let go of the old absolutes of culture, tradition and religion that kept us rigid and inflexible; not reject them but adapt them.
For that to happen there has to be a revolution with a new leader. Not Narendra Modi, not Rahul Gandhi, not Anna Hazare, not Arvind Kejriwal and not Kiran Bedi. Not any of the right or left wing politicians but the people. The people will throw up their new leader. Before that will arise Kali, once again from the people, the power of the people, especially of the women. Because it is the women who will destroy the men who worship her then rape her before giving birth to him and nurturing him again.
I recently finished reading Anand Giridharadas‘ INDIA CALLING, an intimate portrait of a nation’s remaking. I’d watched Jon Stewart interview Anand on The Daily Show and decided to read the book. Any book on and about India fascinates me. The idea of India as perceived and expressed by the writers more often than not reiterates that India means a billion things to a billion people. Some emotions and concepts overlap and some don’t. Depends on where you come from and where you want to go. So of course I picked up the book from my local library. It is less than 300 pages and should have been an easy read but a lot of the time I would slam it shut in mild irritation. Mild irritation because (a) the descriptions just went on and on as if trying to capture, project and exoticise an imagery for a Western audience already unable to fathom the effects of globalisation on a third world country (b) this was an upper-middle class, slightly condescending, slightly enamoured, male point-of-view.
It does not bother me that Anand is a second generation Indian-American. That was one of the reasons I wanted to read the book. The search for identity and roots is an universal desire amongst migrants and so Anand’s idea to go back to India and rediscover his roots is absolutely valid. Neither is he a bad writer but to condense a complex country and current social churning into India101 is problematic. Especially when there is no critique, only fascination.
I will only bullet-point the following and not necessarily in order.
Before anything else, the chapter on Mukesh Ambani is utterly sychophantic. Of course being the richest man in India means people either like you or hate you (and I’m not a fan) but perhaps like in a biopic there might have been some endearing qualities to this man, maybe. Anand has not been able to tell the reader so. Instead he pushes the idea that Mukesh Ambani represents the new India where anyone can become rich. The ‘villager-made-good’ image of Mr Ambani is repeatedly portrayed as if he does not care two hoots about being seen in chappals and pants that begin at his chest. How do you know it is not a deliberate image created to appeal to the common-man Reliance shareholder? And then build an ostentatious tower on allegedly dubiously obtained prime real estate.
Then there is Ravindra from Umred. Great story of a lower caste boy who made it big and even went to Hong Kong as team manager for the Indian roller skating team (although I cannot find any reference online). What percentage of the lower castes does he represent? Barely none. Just one ‘success story’ is not a sign of changing India. Is Ravindra now with a political party where he is the token Dalit leader? I am curious. Has he been able to transform his community by empowering them or just made money for his family? While rest of the lower castes continue to be where they are because the new middle class, made of poor people from the upper caste, assert themselves within the schema.
The Upstairs and Downstairs chachas from Ludhiana, one who exists in the past and another who looks towards the future are such caricatures. We know, we’ve always known. Such families existed before economic liberalisation and always will. They will be in television serials and in Indian films; they will be in your building in urban Bombay and they will be in some remote small town in the middle of India. My family has specimens like this. It is not a new conflict created in modern India unless it is to sell to Western readers.
Obeisance to neoliberalism comes through in the chapter on the Maoists in Hyderabad. Anand tries hard not be be contemptuous of a ‘part-time’ revolutionary who also writes for The Economic Times but ultimately accuses him of being another Brahmin who will treat the workers/comrades as if from the lower castes. On one hand the book eulogises the contradictions that is India and then goes on to point fingers at a living example of the same. Because a businessman activist who runs an NGO aimed at social justice is more kosher than a middle class man who is trying to pay the bills and create awareness of a different kind? Thomas Friedman v/s Karl Marx scenario. Depends on who makes the inference. In this case it is Anand Giridharadas.
The book pretty much retells bits and pieces of Indian history for a Western reader but stays clear of the uncomfortable. Where is the Hindu-Muslim conflict? Why not a single Muslim minority person who might have possibly gained from economic liberalisation? What about the Hindu fundamentalists? Farmers who own and till their own land, frustrated at global cotton prices and helpless because of the free-market policies in India?
Anand tells his grandfather’s story, of marrying a young girl and working for Hindustan Lever, of old school cultural values. Very touching and beautiful. My grandfather grew up in poverty and was the first from his family to have higher education-to become a doctor. He too had very old school cultural values. Honesty, modesty, frugality, hardwork, social responsibility and all that. In his book Anand somehow interprets these as British values that do no fit Indian culture anymore because as India has become richer Indians have gone back to their ‘real’ culture. Manu’s culture; that ‘we-are-like-this-only’ and so everything is relative and subjective. A low caste man commiting a crime deserves to be punished whereas a Brahmin not so. (I have over simplified it here rather than get into a deeper discussion.) So all the above values as subscribed to by our grandparents are alien. That means, as I interpret it, Indians can get away with a lot of bad behaviour and continued lack of repsonsibility towards the world because of some ancient patriarch whose words suit our existence. Or is it that while money is great and greed too, there is no need to apologise about it because the scriptures say so? How convenient. That leaves no space for public discourse at all. Except to blame the government and politicians for every bad thing.
The only three things Anand has observed perfectly are the (a) attitude of the upper middle class South Bombay types who live in posh localities and frequent the posher clubs (or gymkhanas), (b) the modern Indian woman. My dear sisters from back home. Nothing changes there and (c) the lack of a liberal arts education that allows one to think tangentially.
I know this blog is already too long but I do want to use two films as examples of pinpointing the changes in India; to see how Indians negotiate modernity and tradition.
Karan Johar’s 1998 filmKuch Kuch Hota Hai showed us young Indians who lived in their designer gear, played basketball, called each other dude, travelled the world (in the space of the songs) and were at ease with themselves. They had no desire to question tradition and culture, in fact that is where they anchored themselves. Elders were not challenged, there was no sign of defiance, resistance or protest. It was all about the family, love and maintaining status quo. More than ten years later, Imtiaz Ali‘s film Rockstar has an angry, defiant young man as the protagonist. He is unable to express himself, does not know how to do it. His girlfriend gets married without understanding the meaning of it (as do many young Indians) and then the real love story begins. An extra-marital relationship that is fraught with guilt and the inability to escape from what is. There are questions galore, directed to family, to society, to tradition but no words to articulate. (Except through the song Sadda Haq.) In the end both die. That is the impact of globalisation without social discourse. It has speeded up the way Youngistan is discarding ‘old ways’ but without any bulwark of references (should I say foundation). This is unprecedented. The older generation, even those in their forties, who grew up in a socialist India that then transformed into a free market India in the early nineties, what I call the ‘lost generation’, is still to comprehend the changes. So where is that leading to? Backwards. Because when we cannot make sense of what is going on we look to the ‘golden’ past, to religion and the scriptures, imagining and hoping to find safety there.
At best Anand’s book is a collection of his personal expriences and observations as he tries to figure out his ‘Indian identity’ and at worst it is a form of Orientalism I have not yet been able to name. It would be problematic if the book became the definitive text about social and cultural life in free market India.
The 34 Asterix comic books feature 704 traumatic head injuries. Thus have academics analysed and published in a paper in the European Journal Of Neurosurgery, Acta Neurochirurgica. The researchers, lead by Marcel A Kamp, examined the signs (periorbital ecchymosis, hypoglossal paresis etc) and rated the seriousness of each injury according to the Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS). Over 50% of the traumata were classified as severe (GCS between 3-8) and in 696 cases the cause was blunt force while 8 were caused by strangulation. Of course most of the victims were Romans (63.9%) and the rest included Vikings, Britons, Normans, Goths and even extraterrestrials; most of the injuries were caused by Asterix and Obelix (57.6%). Those who consumed Getafix’s Magic Potion suffered from more severe traumata. So goes on an article reporting the same. The analysis has the world of science excited and impressed. Okay. So that might be one big joke and not so robust, apparently, but someone tried.
I wonder. Can Indian pop kitsch mythology withstand even the slightest scientific or academic analysis? It is not an (pseudo)intellectual question. Could the gods, goddesses and demons (asuras) undergo tests classifying actions and reactions, using the Amar Chitra Katha comics as reference? Yeah, Asterix and Obelix cannot be compared to the 330 million Hindu gods because they are created by humans for comic books, as cartoon characters. That is one argument. Hindu mythology has developed over millenia and is largely an allegory for the mysteries of the world and questions about existence. But aren’t the pictures in the ACK comics derived from some reference? Don’t we make our gods in the images we want to see and admire? Or does the aura of mythology and the holiness attached to it preclude enquiry and analysis?
One Sunday morning some years ago, a friend and I went to the Avondale Market. There was a stall selling pooja paraphernalia. The usual kitsch and glitter that our Hindu gods and we love. And fair, rotund, rosy-cheeked, beautiful goddesses. ‘Nice goddesses,’ I told the Indian man from Fiji. ‘These images are inspired by Raja Ravi Varma you know.’ The man was aghast. ‘These goddesses are thousands of years old, sacred. Our holy texts describe them.’ ‘Really, who told you?’ I wanted to have a few laughs. My friend rolled her do-you-have-to eyes. 🙂 Pardon me for talking down from my pedestal but how on earth do we move ahead if we don’t know where we come from? And I don’t mean in sociological terms or as a migrant living in the Western world. If religious priests had it their way we would all live and die blind in a world created by their gods. So we need to know these gods came about in the first place. No?
I swing between being atheistic to agnostic and somewhere in-between I acknowledge the presence of a higher power, the laws of this universe that are equal and unrelenting. The rest is all man made. So are our stories and myths. I’ve always enjoyed the many stories from Hindu mythology. My grandfather was an amazing storyteller and he could narrate stories at the drop of a hat. Not just from the Hindu epics but tales of local saints and miracles, unkown-to-Brahmanism. He was an avid reader and taught us to be the same. Then to seek the real meaning beneath. That is what Hindu mythology is about. Representing the ever flowing universe and all within. Everything alive, everything divine, everything in flux. Nothing is pure good or pure evil, one balances the other and even the Gods (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva) are not infallible.
Even if, at this moment, the universe cannot be comprehensively broken down within the realms of physics and biochemistry, why not try to analyse where the imagery comes from? My ancestral family deity is represented by a stone. Never mind the statue in-between. And the village goddess is as black as sin.
Now think of a pictorial representation in terms of popular culture. In order to humanise and hence relate to mankind. Is that an ever evolving process or set in stone? If we let the religious priests have their way, then yes, pictorial representations would be set in stone. Unless there is money to be made. Then I suppose it is fine for Vaishnodevi to look like a light skinned version of Pocahontas as imagined by Disney? The fairness cream being sanctioned by the holy texts. Until then. Paresis of mythical past. Just saying. Now I’m off to re-read Asterix’s adventures. Along with my surgery chapter on head injuries.
Salman Khan says nationalism is his religion. Not Bollywood PR speak, no. I watched, gobsmacked, the man himself on television say the thing just like one would say, “Keep Your City Clean” or “Hum Do Hamare Do” or “Do Not Spit”. Nationalism is a public-spirit-morality-love-your-country message. Jingoistic patritotic populist.
What is nationalism, I tried to ask. Tried because no one wants to have conversations pertaining to such topics.
Nationalism means loving your country (you silly thing)! Nationalism means feeling pride for INDIA. Nationalism means being the best superpower, kicking gora, chini and every other (especially Pakistani) arse. Nationalism=patriotism and all that. You know, like, proud to be Indian?
The Stanford Encyclopaedia Of Philosophy describes both patriotism and nationalism at length. Briefly, nationalism is (1)the attitude that the members of a nation have when they care about their national identity, and (2) the actions that the members of a nation take when seeking to achieve (or sustain) self-determination. Patriotism can be defined as love of one’s country, identification with it, and special concern for its well-being and that of compatriots. The two often overlap, especially in political discourse, when such concepts have to be simplified for a supposedly not-so-smart hoi polloi and ultimately turning the psyche into ‘us versus them’.
So when Salman exhorts everyone to become nationalistic, he also means patriotic. LOVE YOUR COUNTRY! DIE FOR YOUR COUNTRY! WE ARE THE BEST! IT IS OUR TURN! This then becomes all about world power, domination, aggression and ultimately bad behaviour. I noticed. Along with being a fast growing economy, along with becoming flatter and flatter (as per Thomas Friedman), we also become obnoxious. Because all the other superpowers are like that. Look at America! (Say that with an upper middle class Indian accent.) The popular discourse of ‘us versus them’ then steering towards our own people. Urban versus rural, Hindus versus Muslims, rich versus poor, caste versus caste. Anything or anybody that looks like an obstacle in ‘development’ and ‘progress’ ultimately unpatriotic. The non-violent gentle soul that I am, I was shocked at the hatred Indians had for ‘others’.
In his book, The Idea Of India, Sunil Khilnani asks the question Who Is An Indian? Such a vast, complex country, a palimpsest (Jawaharlal Nehru in A Discovery Of India) is obviously difficult to govern. To then push the idea that mere economic development will cure all ills and ailments, that consumption will make us happy and malls the next destination for pilgrimage is bound to create the demon of nationo-chauvanistic-alism. The Indian media plays a big part. Bollywood booty shakes juxtaposed with rape cases and corrupt politicians along with the rise in food prices. Where is the time for reflection and introspection in between advertisements? And certainly not for temperate language. It is all about fear, insecurity, drama and money. I don’t know if any Indian television station has correspondents stationed in other countries. How can there be any conception of what this existence is?
I personally do not believe in patriotism. Nationalism is a useful notion only until a goal is achieved. After sixty years of independence, India and Indians do not need to either. Democracy and freedom come with responsibility and that has to be constantly discussed in the public domain. To be a world power we have to look within. To lead we do not have to be aggressive or harsh or try to control others. We also have to engage with the rest of the world. We certainly don’t want to be America or emulate her foreign policy or suck up to her. (But even in the West, the dialogue about democracy and problems continues.)
Whenever I tried to talk such I was told that since I’d left India for the West I was a traitor or sorts. So what gave me the right to opine? Because India is an inherent, non-negotiable part of my identity. Because I believe India can be a country to be reckoned with and not just in economic terms. Because India has the potential but only if Indians do serious introspection.
It has been a long wait. The single flight coming in from Delhi was delayed consequently the outward bound flight is late. Impatient passengers clear their luggage through the x-ray machine; tagged and bound. The tiny airport abuzz and strangely disciplined for an Indian one. SAPNA goes in for police clearance. Her backpack full of electronics, a paper carrybag full of shopping and a precious Tibetan painting from Dharamshala.
INT. KANGRA AIRPORT. POLICE CLEARANCE AREA. DAY
SAPNA follows the routine. Electronics out of the backpack, into a tray. Carrybag with fragile contents carefully laid out horizontally on the x-ray machine. MALE POLICE OFFICER pompous. Now towards the female section for metal detection.
INT. KANGRA AIPORT. METAL DETECTION BOOTH. DAY.
HENNA HAIRED FEMALE POLICE (HHFP) gives SAPNA the once over. Once again she is assumed to be English-speaking, ‘modern’ Indian. SAPNA takes off her two jackets.
HHFP (In English)
Why you remhowe jackets?
So you can check me
HHFP (In English)
Did I ask you to remhowe jackets?
SAPNA (In Hindi)
HHFP (In English)
I nebher ask. Then why you remhowe? Wear them.
SAPNA quietly dons the two jackets. This is not the time to question logic and security routine. She is sad to leave Dharamshala but Delhi will be another adventure.
HHFP (In English)
Bhery good. Now I will check.
She runs the metal detector all over SAPNA’s body. Nods in approval, stamps the boarding pass and lets her through.
INT. KANGRA AIRPORT. POLICE CLEARANCE AREA. DAY
On the other side-which is also the exit to the runway. SAPNA carefully rearranges her cameras and laptop into the backpack, makes sure her precious painting is not damaged, nothing has been nicked and the luggage tag on both bags has been stamped. Another pompous MALE POLICE OFFICER looks on.
I know it is not in script format. Don’t know how to do it within this blog. 🙂